A pregnant elephant dies after eating a pineapple loaded with firecrackers. It's an agonizing death. She stands for days in water with her head submerged trying to cool her hurt mouth and ultimately the cause of her death was drowning. The elephant is located four days before she died by the forest department. They find her standing in the water. But somehow no one thinks to euthanize her to put her out of her misery. After her death, Twitter and other social media explode into a frenzy of outrage. Petitions are signed and arrests are called for. The ugly truth is this: several elephants die across India in exactly the same way. The pineapple loaded with firecrackers was not fed to her, nor was it intended for elephants. This sort of fruit, packed with explosives, is commonly placed in fields to keep wild boars and deer from destroying crops. It's a horrific way for any animal to die but a wild boar running around in agony with its jaw and mouth blown to pieces causes less outrage.
Some stories reach out and grab us. A pregnant elephant dying in this ghastly prolonged way is one of them. The anger and shock is natural but the selective outrage changes nothing. It's perhaps time to understand the big picture today - World Environment Day. Habitat loss for elephants in India has been so extensive that elephants all over the country are seeking out agricultural fields for food. The average elephant needs about a 150 kgs of food and 150 liters of water every = day. Starvation and dehydration can set in quickly.
On average, about 80 elephants are killed every year. Electrocution is the Number One cause of death. Live wires are laid across elephant paths. I have personally witnessed the death of a young female elephant in Odisha years ago while her weeks-old calf wailed over her corpse. At the time, in that area, dozens of people had been killed by elephants over the course of six months when they came through the villages hungry, stressed and looking for food; a young man had been killed just the day before. Through the ten days I spent there, not a single person in authority, not even an official from the forest department, showed up to address the issues. No crop compensation was paid, no death compensation; illegal mining was flourishing; people were frightened and stressed.
In the last five years, 2,300 people have been killed by elephants. And death by elephant is pretty horrific. A six-ton animal kneeling on your chest or crushing you with its massive forehead or spinning you around and smashing you with its trunk and feet are all horrible ways to die. Trains mow down more elephants than exploding fruit do. Starvation too kills more elephants than exploding fruit. All of it a terrible way for these magnificent animals to die.
All us urbanites busy decrying the death of this elephant lit the fuse on that cracker with our huge consumption drive that has ruined the wild home of these magnificent creatures, forcing them to go into villages looking for food. It's our need for roads, railway connections, coal, iron ore, steel, bitumen, gold, oil and gas and all of the products that are produced by the stripping down of old growth forests, grasslands, wetlands and hundreds of water bodies. You and I then enjoy the luxuries safely ensconced in our urban surroundings while the trail of damage is left to the poor local communities and homeless wildlife.
Thousands of elephants in captivity across India stand for hours on end tethered by short chains in temples and weddings and tourism destinations with open sores and bleeding feet. They are generally malnourished ; in the time of Covid-19, they are starving. We have 3,500 captive elephants in India and the training they undergo - to ferry tourists on their backs, participate in religious festivals wearing heavy decorations amidst crowds of lakhs, and feature in weddings and other events without hurting people - is brutal. As they are big animals, the control required over them comes through a memory of pain response and a certain crushing of the spirit. Their feet are not adapted for tar and concrete. Temperatures of 47 degrees makes roads and surfaces living fire that they have to stand on. These animals, because of the way they feed, are designed to move, and yet are often tied up with less than a hundred meters of movement. This is all as bad as an exploding fruit.
These beautiful animals are our ecosystem engineers. As they move and feed and defecate , they disperse seeds far and wide. They are key to the genetic diversity of trees in many forests. Their dung is food and home to varieties of insects and butterflies. Their design of feeding ensures that no one tree species dominates a landscape and their presence can turn forests into grasslands and grasslands Into forests.
The Ministry of Environment and Forests has just handed over parts of the Dehing Patkai elephant sanctuary in Assam for coal mining. The mining has begun even before clearance from the national wildlife board. Dehing Patkai is the largest tropical lowlands forest in India. Many other elephant forests and migration routes are being logged, blocked, mined, transacted, exploited. If we care for elephants, here's where our real attention and energy needs to be. That's the big picture. If we can ensure habitats are maintained, local people are supported through their losses, elephant captivity is banned, we can ensure less suffering for elephants as a whole.
(Swati Thiyagarajan is an Environment Editor with NDTV and author of 'Born Wild', a book about her experiences with conservation and wildlife both in India and Africa.)
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